Between 1829 and 1831, Jared Curtis, the newly appointed prison chaplain at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown, interviewed every one of the over 300 inmates at the prison and recorded their biographies in two leatherbound notebooks. Those notebooks, fully transcribed and well annotated after their discovery in 1998, form the basis for Philip F. Gura's Buried from the World.
Curtis's notebooks provide the sole memorial of the hundreds of inarticulate prisoners who lived in the vast silence of Charlestown prison. The one or two paragraphs he devoted to each man capture in poignant shorthand lives otherwise lost to history, including details of age, race, upbringing and education, temperance, and the crime that brought that individual to Charlestown. Curtis's words, surrogate for theirs, reveal as in no other known document the contours of the prison experience in Jacksonian America.
Gura places the document in its historical context with a thorough and thoughtful introduction. He reviews the nature of nineteenth-century prison reform as the backdrop for the 1829 reorganization of the Massachusetts facility in which Curtis worked. Gura also details the daily regimen and conditions within the state prison and discusses the demographics of the institution's remarkably heterogeneous population.
Philip J. Gura, the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has published widely in early American history and literature. His most recent book, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, won a Deems Taylor Special Citation from ASCAP.